Brandon is dead. Squished between the compost bin and the chicken wire, flat on his back, his little arms and legs tucked against his belly, I know it’s him. His spotted fur still looked soft and full making me think his demise was very recent. Or maybe he was sleeping? Do skunks sleep on their backs? Leaving their bellies exposed? I looked closer. Brandon was decapitated. Did he somehow get stuck under the chicken wire? The ends of the wire are sharp, not as dangerous as barbed wire but it would still hurt. Yet I couldn’t imagine that the wire was strong enough to cut through his neck. And his head was gone. Another animal must have done the nasty deed, perhaps a fight over property rights. I would never know.
My heart ached a little. Brandon was my first critter friend at least until I erected the chicken wire fence to keep him out of the compost bin. I hadn’t seen evidence of him for months until recently when I noticed something had been partying in the compost bin. Empty through the summer it was starting to fill again. The guests are coming in droves now that the summer heat is gone. Environmentally conscious, they recycle their cardboard and plastic and drop organic matter into the compost bin making it attractive once again to the local wildlife. Egg shells and orange rinds littered the back of the house and the wire was bent low and pulled apart at the seam. The aroma told me a skunk was the culprit and I wondered if it was Brandon. I peeked inside but never saw him.
I put the bin back in order. I shoveled all the decaying matter into a wheelbarrow and mixed it in with the compost pile near the garden. I reset the chicken wire and rocks, tightening and fastening the seam then finished up by tidying the ground. Days went by, guests came and went and the bin remained secure and animal free. Until yesterday. I smelled Brandon as I rounded the corner of the house. A banana peel hung over the bent chicken wire and egg shells covered the ground. From the extent of the damage I figured it must be a striped skunk, a breed twice the size of Brandon. I cleaned things up once again knowing I needed to come up with a better system. But before I could make improvements, I found Brandon.
Using a shovel I tried to pry Brandon out from between the wire and the bin but he was wedged tight, his tail pinned under the wire. I rocked him back and forth a bit until his tail came free allowing me to flip his little body end over end to the opening in the wire. Gingerly I grasped a wisp of tail and pulled him out, trying to free him without inflicting further damage.
Prone on the ground, he looked so tiny. Stop being silly, I thought. This is part of the cycle of life, but I still felt sad. I remembered the first time I saw Brandon, his black button eyes peering up at me from inside the bin. He was delightful! Cute and calm, he never sprayed me, not once. He never stamped his feet at me. He knew there was no need. While I didn’t want him to dine in the compost bin he knew I would never hurt him. He died a violent death but worse than that Brandon had died alone. And that was the saddest bit of all.
The wind was cold and biting, unusual for my Arizona home. Rain seemed imminent and grey clouds urged me indoors but I had a job to do. I picked Brandon up with the shovel and carried his body to the back of the property. Setting him down gently, I dug a grave. I placed Brandon in the grave, using the shovel to arrange him in a way that I hoped would be comfortable. Quietly I covered him with dirt and patted it down firmly. I decided against a marker but a gust of wind swept up some leaves blanketing the grave with autumn gold. Perfect. I stood for several minutes, not thinking, not praying, no tears. I simply stood there looking at the tiny golden grave. It was enough. I walked away.
It’s been a slow ripening. The pecan trees are starting to shed, little by little, nut by nut. One day soon the trees will decide to get it over with, the wind will kick up to lend a hand, and all the nuts will fall. The commercial nut growers use big shaker machines to harvest the nuts. They spread tarps under the trees, wrap a belt around the trunk and hook it up to a tractor. When they rev up the tractor it shakes the pecans right out of the tree onto the tarps. I remember way back when advertisements for vibrating machines with canvas belts you wrapped around your butt to shake away the flab. I am sure the idea for it came from the tree shakers. We don’t have one and I’m glad. I can’t imagine it’s very good for the tree to get the bejesus shook out of it. And I am happy to spend my afternoons harvesting nuts.
The smoky scent of pecans lingers on my hands. I love the smell and so do the wild pigs. Javelinas don’t see well but their snouts smell the way jackrabbits hear and they can pick up that subtle pecan scent from a mile away. Those wild pigs are nuts for nuts and every afternoon around 4:30 p.m. they sneak up the bank from the creek to nose around the pecan grove searching for the early droppings. The herd is large, around thirty or so, of boars, sows and cute little piglets. Dark in color, they are more primitive looking than domestic pigs with caveman-like sloping heads, long snouts and bristly hair on their backs. And they are powerful, lean and well muscled with quick feet. For the most part they are peaceful, but the boars are not afraid to use their fierce tusks when cornered or if the babies are in danger. Their poor eyesight allows me to sneak up on them to snap a photo or two, but once they catch wind of me, they become alarmed and stampede up the mountain.
We are bracing for battle. The javelinas want the pecans and so do I. War has been declared. I considered my strategy:
· The javelinas arrive on the scene around 4:30 p.m. every day.
· If they see me they run away.
· Javelinas are not as picky as I am. They will eat any pecans that I feel are not fully ripe and consider unworthy.
There are at least twenty trees in the grove and that’s a lot of nuts. Now I am willing to share pecans with the pigs as long as I get the larger share. Those organic pecans are gold and I figure I can get five or six dollars a pound for them at the farmer’s market. Based on what I know my strategy is to go out in the grove at least an hour before the pigs.
The first day I walked the grove at 3:30 p.m. and filled my bucket to the brim. It is easy work and I finished in an hour. The javelinas arrived right on schedule, nosing around and chomping down on the measly leftovers. Happy that my plan worked I followed suit the second day and once again beat the pigs to the punch. Now they were on to me. The next day the full herd arrived at 3:00 p.m., racing around to gobble up all the goodies.
Okay, I thought. Two can play this game and I moved my harvest time up to 2:00 p.m. And I walked the grove twice to make sure I gathered every nut. Later that evening, while eating my dinner, I heard a ruckus outside, galloping feet pounding the sand. Thinking it was the horses I walked out my door to see what upset them but it wasn’t the horses, it was javelina! I was surrounded! The herd was running circles around and around, laying siege to my castle. A big boar stopped at the foot of the stairs to the deck, less than five feet away and looked me right in the eye. I stared right back, pointed at him and yelled.
“No nuts for you!”
The pigs went into a frenzy! They didn’t come up on the deck, although they could have, instead galloping around and around my home, shooting under the deck, trampling the bushes, raising dust, even bumping the tires of my car. Now when I first came to Arizona, the thought of wild pigs intimidated me, but no more. I’m bigger, louder, and cuter than them by far. I grabbed my walking stick, banged it on the deck and yelled even louder.
“Is that all you got? Hah!”
A little piggy stopped and looked at me, unsure what to do. One by one, the bigger pigs pulled up, formed a shield in front of the piglet, and gathered in front of the deck. Backs bristled high, eyes focused, snuffling and snorting, were they preparing to rush me? My stick and I certainly were no match for so many pigs. Outnumbered I retreated, going back inside to watch them from the safety of my window. Triumphant they pranced away, heads held high. I laughed. They may have chased me back inside but I still had the pecans.
There must be over a thousand pecan pods still high in the trees. One cold night they will snap open, the nuts will fall and the race will be on. The battle lines are drawn and I intend to win. Victory will be mine. But I’ll take the dog and walking stick with me just in case.